Tales Of The Riverbank is the book I never published but really ought to have. Instead I have chosen to serialise it here on the web site. If you search the site under the ‘Books’ category you’ll find the previous 12 installments. We’re up to the fifth chapter now and I’m looking at some of the people and favourite places my path has crossed. Some are ‘big shots’ in the game and some are little ones. In fact there will be names I don’t even recall, but let me begin with a guy who I shared so many great trips with, a guy who knows all about big ‘uns and little ‘uns.
My Old Mate ‘Walt’…!
Billy Salter was a Colliery Deputy before the mining industry imploded. Big and strong as an ox, yet at the same time a mischievous gentle giant. However, no one ever wanted to sit in the passenger seat next to him when he drove because he had a tendency at the least expected moment to reach across with his left hand, grab you just above the knee and squeeze,
“No Billy, no Billy, let go you bas****!” We’d yell.
He’d just chuckle and ask all innocently, “What’s up wi’ yer!”
Billy loved fishing and country sports with equal passion. He kept two working Labradors, a young dog and an old dog, Penny and Bella. They were trained as gun dogs and they seemed to have a telepathic understanding with him. The trio loved beating for the North Yorkshire shoots. Billy himself was a fine shot with a particular penchant for a certain breed of ‘black ducks’ should they ever enter his no-fly zone but perhaps we’ll gloss over that. Let’s just say that his sterling efforts have contributed magnificently to the fact that we still have a high population of silver fish in the Don and the South Yorkshire canals and he really should be awarded with a gong when the Queen comes around to her senses.
We’d often take a dog to the Trent with us and she’d dutifully stand guard over Billy’s peg, never wandering off, never complaining.
He and John Dudley were expert wasp grub anglers and I benefited greatly from their experience. Massive nets of chub were the order of the day in late summer and through autumn but things were changing and we began to encounter a few barbel. When it came to barbel fishing Billy was unconventional to say the least. He thought nothing of fishing with a size 20 hook tied direct to 6lb line, nor did he think that fishing a single maggot on a size 8 hook was remotely unusual. And Billy caught barbel, lots of ‘em.
He caught plenty of other fish, too, but you’d seldom learn much from him in the technical sense. If you asked how he shotted his floats he’d say with some big ‘uns and some little ‘uns, because that’s exactly what he used.
Despite his unconventional approach he couldn’t half fish a bit.
The Newark Advertiser, fished on the Trent and Newark Dyke, used to attract something like 400 anglers. It was a big match. I recall fishing it one year and dropping back to the Newark Showground headquarters afterwards, presumably I must have won my section.
There I found Pete Evans and Billy sat at a table and joined them. It turned out that Billy had won the event and Pete had finished second which wasn’t bad going when you consider they’d travelled together.
I couldn’t help but shoot him a puzzled look across the table. When the reporter left us I turned to Billy and asked what that was all about.
“Oh, I took the day off work and rang in sick!”
“And so did I…” Added Pete.
Who’d employ an angler, eh?
There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Spider – It Wriggled And Wriggled And Wriggled Inside Her…
My work over the past 40-odd years has been demanding and time consuming but it has enabled me to spend a lot of time in the countryside while someone else picked up the vehicle and fuel costs. Many a lunchtime has been spent sat by a river watching someone fish or exploring some forgotten stream.
One day I came across a most unusual dog on the banks of the River Idle below Misterton. Its owner was fishing away while the dog sat bolt upright. I swear it’s eyes followed his float down the river and each time the angler struck it would look immediately up at the rod and offer an encouraging yelp.
On one trot down the float dipped under, the angler struck and the dog became extremely agitated, whimpering and yapping encouragement. The guy had caught a bootlace eel about the size and thickness of a pencil. After swinging in the eel and unhooking it he turned to the dog and said, “Do you want it?”
Suddenly the guy said, “Okay, here you are.” And threw the eel onto the flattened rushes, whereupon the eel immediately burrowed into them.
The dog went apoplectic. It pounced on the spot and began clawing at the rushes, then sticking it’s nose into the space it had cleared, gradually forcing it’s whole head beneath the rushes, snuffling and whimpering all the while. This seemed to go on for ages. And then the dog went rigid before backing out with the eel’s head in its mouth while its tail thrashed wildly around the dog’s face and nose.
The dog sat back on it’s haunches, head in the air, and I’ll swear it was smiling. Never have I seen a dog look quite so excited and content at the same time.
The eel’s tail must have writhed around for a good minute before the dog sucked the whole thing into it’s mouth like a child slurping down a string of spaghetti and with a pronounced gulp the live eel was sent wriggling down into its stomach.
Can you imagine that? A live eel inside you? Well, this dog appeared to enjoy the experience, rather a lot!
A Record Roach And A Darned Fine Gentleman
Peter Drennan had kindly invited me to take in a tour of his Oxford factory and then join him for a day’s fishing on the Kennet. What an experience it proved to be. Peter’s story has been well documented but it is nevertheless a classic rags to riches story that begins with a young man making a few floats in his mothers garage and ends with, I suppose, one of the world’s most familiar angling brands. What began with floats now stretches to two and a half thousand product lines.
We lunched at Boccaro Court and I was shown several new ideas that would soon be going into production. We toured the various Drennan premises where floats are produced by the thousand, hooks by the million and every accessory you care to think of are stacked high on racks. His philosophy on stock control is dead simple. He doesn’t like computers, preferring instead to walk the aisles and check the shelves, “When they’re half full it’s time to make some more.” He told me.
His other ethos revolves around product design, “I don’t try to re-invent the wheel, Bob. All I do is take a product and make it better.”
Anyone who is old enough to remember the launch of his bait boxes at a time when every other bait box was circular will understand. Drennan made boxes that stacked on top of each other, their feet maintained an air gap and prevented them sliding apart, the holes were tapered so debris could be knocked-out, the lids were opaque so you could see what was inside, they came in 1.1, 2.2 and 3.3 pint sizes so that there was enough room for an air supply and some maize when you ordered in multiples of pints.
I’m sure you get the picture. Drennan does it right.
But I’m squirming as I write this, the highlight of the factory tour wasn’t the products, as impressive as they were, it was a glass case containing two fish. Not any old fish, mind you, there in front of me was Bill Penney’s famous brace of roach. The former record holding fish weighing 3-14 shares a bow-fronted case with a second roach of 3-1.
“Come here,” Peter said, and he moved to the side of the case, “Look along the flanks, can you believe how broad these fish are across the shoulders?”
I’ve seen these fish in photographs but a picture can’t possibly capture the magnificence of the real thing. I can’t imagine your average specialist angler having specimens like this set up today but I have recently heard whispers that one modern record fish has been stuffed and cased. The angler who revealed this claims he was told of the fish by the late Peter Stone who had actually seen it in a taxidermist’s workshop.
Peter was tied up in a meeting that evening but I was ably entertained by Gary Barclay and Adam Penning. Both work(ed) for Peter and we’ve known each other for years yet have never been out on the town together. We had far too much to drink, ate a giant Chinese feast and laughed into the small hours. It was a great evening.
With bleary eyes I joined Peter and Frances for breakfast at their renovated Manor House in a village on the outskirts of Oxford. You know, I could cope with living in a place like theirs. Later we set off for a day on the Kennett but the air temperature was not going to do us any favours. The river had been in the meadows in recent weeks. As the levels subsided the temperature dipped savagely and huge sheets of ice covered the landscape. These were now beginning to melt –very slowly – and the ice melt was creeping into the river which was gradually getting colder and colder.
To say bites had to be earned is an understatement. Yes, we caught a few dace, and grayling, plus the obligatory ‘spotties’ on stick float and maggot, but it’s so frustrating to fish on one of the UK’s finest rivers with conditions stacked up against you like this. Still, there’s always next time.
“You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you?” said Peter.
“Please stay!” Insisted Frances.
So I did, and what an experience that proved to be. Like most self-made, hard working people, both Peter and Frances work very hard. You might say too hard. After a full day’s work they found themselves driving home to start cooking, after which precious little time was left for relaxation so they decided to indulge themselves in one very small luxury. They decided to hire a cook. But not any old cook.
I do hope Frances won’t mind me revealing that she has a gluten allergy. It is absolutely essential that she avoids wheat products and they had managed to find a cook who suffers with the very same allergy. Moreover he was a French cordon blue chef.
The night I ate there was his debut and you might guess he was out to impress. I can say without any fear of contradiction that I have never eaten better food in my life than on that night.
We sat in the kitchen around a huge pine table, Frances at one end, me at the other. Peter sat in the middle. He’d not changed out of his fishing jumper and Frances pointed to his elbow. “I darned that!” she said, proudly, “I always imagined, when I was a little girl, that one day I’d sew things as I grew older. No-one ever tells you that your eyesight won’t let you, do they?”
It seemed somehow fitting that this loving couple, who by any standards have it all, would sit around around the dinner table and talk about darning jumpers. Success hasn’t gone to their heads whatsoever and I liked that.
While we waited for dinner to be served Peter invited me to see his wine cellar. “I made these, you know.” Pointing proudly to the neat wine racks that were his handywork.
He reached down and pulled out a bottle, blew the dust off it, “Here, I’d like you to take this. I was fortunate to get a batch direct from the importer for ten pounds a bottle. They would cost you a hundred pounds in a restaurant.”
Peter wasn’t showing off. The gesture was genuine and I took it with grace. But it left me with a dilemma. When would you actually drink a bottle of wine that was worth a hundred pounds?
I found the answer, but more of that later.
Meanwhile I’m conscious that time is flying by and I’ve not been back to see the Drennans since and that’s such a shame.
If you enjoyed this article the first 12 instalments of Tales Of The Riverbank can be found here
Coming Shortly: Part 14 – Days out with Des Taylor and Matt Hayes…